This blog series was inspired by the simple and complex truth, offered by Professor Rob Coe, that we need to get students thinking hard to learn best. The first post in my series, entitled ‘Thinking Hard…And Why We Avoid It‘, explores why our students’ lazy brains let them down and how their thinking is quickly overloaded. The second post in the series, labelled ‘Thinking Hard…and Motivation‘, reflects upon the crucial importance of motivation in driving learning.

This third part of the series is my attempt to distill ‘thinking hard’ into something that teachers can help students enact in the the classroom.

We can easily start in the wrong place – seeking to give our students ‘thinking skills’ or some quick fix that helps them think hard. There is no short cut to hard thinking. We know that at school the vocabulary of our students develops exponentially. From a typical vocabulary of 25000 aged 11, our students learn thousands of words every year, leaving school with something like 50,000 words on average. The difference in the capacity of  child with 50,000 or 60,000 words to think hard, compared to a child with half that vocabulary breadth, is of course massively significant.

With this in mind, we need to build strong foundations of great literacy and establish a strong basis of general knowledge. Being able to think hard is basically predicated on how much prior knowledge you possess. Therefore, any strategies in the classroom which support a deep and rich vocabulary, with a broad knowledge base, will help our students to think hard.


Words, words, words

We can help by using classroom strategies that explicitly teaching vocabulary acquisition. We can teach, model and encourage word learning strategies, identifying root words and exploring the fascinating etymology of words, telling the stories of our rich linguistic history. We can also explicitly teach an effective and realistic use of a dictionary, a thesaurus, and other useful research tools. By modelling the reading of books with unfamiliar and complex vocabulary, alongside developing an explicit ‘academic vocabulary’ for each of our subject domains, we can help scaffold our students’ hard thinking. Ultimately, we cannot teach every word in the dictionary, but we can teach our students the skill of interpreting new vocabulary more successfully.

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Figure 2. from Teaching and Developing Vocabulary: Key to Long-term Reading Success


Find out what they know

If prior knowledge is the foundation for thinking hard, then it follows that we need to best ascertain what knowledge they already possess. Graham Nuthall, in his seminal research, distilled in ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners‘, found that students already know on average 50% of what they being taught. The problem is that every student knows a different 50%! Therefore having multiple classroom strategies to find out what they know is crucial.

A good active way to start is to get students to generate their own questions about a given topic. Are you planning to teach blood circulation in Biology? Then probe what they already know by scrutinising their questions on the topic. Get them to devise twenty questions for a given topic, which will reveal how much, or how little, they know. Also, you can give students a pre-test, where they are tested on a given topic even before they have studied it. They have the potential to flounder, but it better helps to prime their future learning. Alternatively, get them to design a concept map on a given topic (this could prove a whole-class interactive wall display that is completed as they learn), again, this shows what they know and also what they are missing. You could create a ‘common sense checklist’ whereat you devise lots of statements related to a topic, with a true/false option, shigh serves the purpose of probing their knowledge and understanding.

Our students’ prior knowledge can be broken down simply into what they know, what they think they know (most students, just like us, are invariably overconfident about what they know) and what they need to know. Just finding out what they know goes part of the way in supporting them to think hard, but we need to find out their misconceptions too – what they erroneously think they know. Strategies like My Favourite No can make finding misconceptions a normal part of the classroom routine, creating what Doug Lemov termed a ‘Culture of Error‘. The American Psychological Association helpfully suggests some strategies for overcoming misconceptions here.


Model Excellence

It is of course important to seek of misconceptions, but too often we can make assumption that our students know what excellence actually looks like, not to mention how to develop it themselves. We should be insistent and explicit about modelling excellence. Ron Berger, whose ‘An Ethic of Excellence‘ proves a must read for teachers, distilled the importance of modelling excellence thus:

“Most discussions of assessment start in the wrong place. The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to students but goes on inside students. Every student walks around with a picture of what is acceptable, what is good enough. Each time he works on something he looks at it and assesses it. Is this good enough? Do I feel comfortable handing this in? Does it meet my standards?” (P103, ‘An Ethic of Excellence’)

We can adjust that all important assessment in our students’ head that regulates their hard thinking in clear, practical ways. Shared writing is likely my favourite teaching strategy and helps do this. By exhibiting the writing process (substitute writing here for mathematical equations, Geography answers, pas ting in Art etc.) and talking through how an expert writer think as they write – errors and all – we model what every novice requires. By asking questions along the way, and offering debate and discussion, we invite our students to think hard like experts do.

There are multiple ways to enact effective modelling in our classrooms. Showing students worked examples is a common strategy, before then fading the support of examples away. Getting students to sequence model answers by quality, in gallery style for full impact, helps modify our students’ thinking. You can model examination processes with live mocks. Even simply telling students that they will teach someone else what they are learning, thereby becoming a role model themselves, can prove a method for getting students to  better pursue excellence – what I describe here as ‘the trick of teaching‘.


Stop, wait and listen

The littlest difference in our teaching influences our students’ thinking. On a simple level, if we don’t wait for them to answer our questions properly, or those of their peers, then we strip them of the capacity to learn how to think hard (of course, asking better questions is crucial too). The famous research on ‘wait time’ showed teachers only gave students little over a second to answer a question. If we don’t allow for some mental struggle and deep thought in our habitual classroom routines then how will students learn how to think hard? Perhaps increasing ‘wait time’ in our classes would prove one small habit change that could have a significant impact on our students’ capacity to think hard.


Think for yourself

There is a lot of misunderstanding that attends the notion of independent learning. It is a honorable goal for our teaching, but it should seldom prove the best means. Better to think of developing the interdependence of our students to develop their thinking on the path from novice to expert.

We must help our students refine their thinking by really unpicking how an expert thinks and learns in our subject domain. We can train students to better organise their notes (this ‘Triplicate Note Method‘ may do the trick) so they can better undertake that skill independently. Also, we must help our students to better research  – right down to the best way to search on Google. The web is no doubt a quagmire of cat videos and a thief of time, but it can be used to enrich our students’ thinking.

We need to help our students to understand how to climb out the quagmire when they are stuck, thereby helping them think for themselves. This could mean modelling strategies such as revisiting their notes and re-reading teacher feedback, going to the library, checking the internet, or emailing their teacher.  Again, modelling learning does the trick. Show students some metacognitive questions – that is, questions that help them to think about our thinking. For example, ‘Do I have all the information?’ ‘What are the key elements of the information and/or task?’ ‘Can I put this information into my own words?’ ‘How can I reorganise this information more effectively?’ By making the thinking of an expert visible in this way, we better place our students on the path toward that end goal of independence.

Dylan Wiliam, get the final thought, as he summarises students thinking for themselves and learning metacognitively here: